Imagine a day when you can walk out to your car, start the engine, and drive to work — all without burning fuel or plugging into a charging station. For most, this would seem possible only in the world of science fiction. But for some innovators and clean energy advocates, it has become a mission.
For many years, there has been a steady development of solar-powered vehicles. These cars are designed to run entirely on energy harnessed from the sun. The concept is clear: If we can design a viable consumer car that runs only on solar power, we can free ourselves from any form of fuel consumption.
Although they remain largely conceptual, solar cars are gaining traction as a possible mainstream solution for the environmentally conscientious consumer. They promise a way to save on volatile fuel costs, eliminate harmful emissions, and provide a simple and universal process for charging a vehicle.
While this sounds like a dream come true for many consumers, questions remain. Among them is possibly the most important: Are solar-powered vehicles possible? Let’s look at some of the advantages of solar power — as well as the obstacles that must be overcome.
What Are the Advantages of Solar-Powered Cars?
Clean Energy: The advantage here is evident: A solar-powered vehicle, if feasible, would not rely on fuel to power its engine, which means it would not burn gasoline and emit dangerous chemicals into the air. We can see similar benefits already with fully electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, especially when they are being charged from renewable sources like solar or wind. A fully solar-powered vehicle promises a quiet, clean ride.
Off-Grid Charging: How would you like to access energy without ever having to fill up the tank or stop at a charging station? A solar-powered vehicle could harness the sun’s energy with a series of solar panels. These convert the energy and power your car’s engine, allowing it to run. A car can be “charged” by leaving it in sunlight.
Independence: Harnessing energy from the sun is unique because it is always available. There will no longer be a need to search for the closest gas station or carry a spare fuel container in your trunk.
What Are the Obstacles for Solar Vehicles?
Although the promise of solar power is compelling, there are many limitations to the design aspects of a solar car. Despite being called “the car of the future,” solar vehicles have many characteristics to resolve before becoming part of the mainstream automotive industry.
Power: Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome is the power of solar panels. Competitive solar cars (built for one driver) are incredibly lightweight and covered with solar panels. This allows them to travel a good distance before needing to recharge. However, concept consumer cars will need to be built for more than one rider. On these vehicles currently, a charge from eight hours of good sunlight will power a car for only 15 to 20 miles. This is simply not good enough for the modern consumer. When electric-gas hybrids promise hundreds of miles worth of driving distance, solar vehicles cannot compete.
Practicality: Another important obstacle is the practicality of a solar car. Currently, most solar-powered vehicles are designed as proof-of-concept or competition cars. They are made to test the limitations of solar power, not to be used as an everyday commuter. Designs are typically sleek and aerodynamic, extremely lightweight, and covered with solar panels. They can fit only one driver.
Cost: Because most solar vehicles are one-of-a-kind competition models, they are unavailable to consumers and quite expensive. Some estimates price solar cars at $80,000 (although this will certainly be reduced by tax incentives and rebates). The steep price tag and limited capabilities of the car make it a novelty, not a practical option.
Solar Cars Today
Solar-powered vehicles remain the “car of the future,” with a heavy emphasis on future. Still, research is ongoing, and several concept cars prove that solar energy can be used to successfully power a car.
With continued innovation (particularly in the strength and efficiency of solar panels), we may find that solar cars become viable in the next decade.